Zo, Catania, Italy
I found the ReR re-release of The Necks' Hanging Gardens CD waiting
for me in my mailbox the group's name did not ring any bell. In fact,
I thought I was certain I had never heard of them before. Listening
to the CD was an extremely puzzling experience, as exciting as watching
the paint dry. The music appeared to proceed (evolve?) in a very deliberate
way - but way too slowly - by a process of careful accumulation/substitution
whose results I found uninteresting and definitely uninvolving, to say
the least. Time to make a few phone calls.
judgement I trusted had heard of the group, but I was told that a friend
of a friend, whose main passion is music in the minimalism/new age vein,
liked the group a lot. And though I always remind myself not to judge
a book by its readers, it all made perfect sense. Sure, the group was
undeniably good: the performances by both the bass (Lloyd Swanton) and
the keyboard player (Chris Abrahams) showed the musicians possessed
a mature sense of economy and very big ears, while the drummer (Tony
Buck) was obviously excellent, his hi-hat patterns propelling the first
part of the (one hour long) piece with both stamina and finesse. But
to me the whole sounded like a walk on the mild side, a strange mixture
of some weird permutation of minimalism and those trance/drum&bass
climates that I find perfectly acceptable in a club but have absolutely
no use for at home.
a look at the press release. A quote from The Guardian: "A post-jazz,
post-rock, post-everything experience that has few parallels or rivals."
Right. (With friends like these...) One from The Wire: "The listener
can drift in and out of the record as if in a dream state." And
that's exactly the way I do not listen to music. Maybe if I smoked a
joint... But if I smoked a joint (an extremely unlikely occurrence)
would Hanging Gardens be the record I'd choose to put on? Not in a million
years. It was at this very moment that I remembered that I had, in fact,
read about The Necks in The Wire, and that their very favourable description
of the group's music had been reason enough for me to decide to never
bother investigating it.
In a way,
it all reminded me of Nils Petter Molvær's CD from two years ago:
an album that quite a few people raved about (Solid Ether) I had regarded
as nothing more than a tacky combination of an extremely-diluted, second-hand
Miles plus a few generic pseudo-modern rhythms. Sure, it can ultimately
be said that it's only a matter of taste. But taste is not an absolute,
independent, immutable entity. Maybe if we reflect about it we can learn
a few things about our own preferences, habits and blind spots. And
so, as soon as I was told that The Necks were to play in my town (admission:
€7, or about $7) I reserved a seat.
the group is an interesting animal. On this particular night, the piano
was the springboard that propelled the music: fast, regular arpeggios
executed in the keyboard's upper region. Drums and double bass played
mostly in counterpoint mode, exchanging their roles at the end of the
concert, with the bass player hitting the instrument's body and the
drummer playing a melodic phrase on skins and cymbals. It's obvious
that they have worked at their craft - and at building a group identity
- for a long time, their subtle interplay definitely not being the outcome
of chance. The other people in the audience (about eighty?) seemed quite
happy, in a mild sort of way. Three days later I decided to listen to
the CD again.
minimalism is... forty years old? I believe the first thing I heard
in the idiom was Terry Riley's A Rainbow In A Curved Air. By the early
'70s its influence on a lot of rock music was definitely impossible
to miss. When I bought Tony Conrad's Outside The Dream Syndicate (released
on Caroline, Virgin's budget sister label, in 1973) I had never heard
of him - the fact that some members from Faust played on the album was
the main reason I bought it - but the music itself was not that new.
Nor was the dictum "repetition is a form of change". (Since
"minimalism" is a tag that's nowadays mostly associated with
certain musicians - and their procedures - I think that for the purpose
of our present discussion "repetition as source material"
will be a much better word.) And of course by the mid-'70s groups like
Can and Neu! had brought repetition in the rhythmic section to the fore
(curiously, there's a moment - at about 40' in the Necks album - that
closely reminded me of Can's Vernal Equinox, from 1975 Landed).
new appears - a deviation from the norm - it's interesting precisely
because it presents us with a new approach. But when it becomes the
norm - and in many ways (just listen to the radio, or to the music in
clubs, not to mention at raves) repetition is a new norm (not the new
norm - nowadays there are many) - it's what you do with it that separates
the men from the boys. Now, something that has always puzzled me is
the fact that the works of some musicians who have used repetition as
source material - say, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony
Davis - are largely ignored by the same people who really like "minimalism"
and "repetition". Maybe less puzzling is the fact that the
common use of "repetition" when it comes to the listening
department (remember, this tells us nothing about the quality of the
music itself) is akin to a kind of "aural wallpaper".
ago I managed to catch The Note Factory - Roscoe Mitchell's large ensemble
(nine members, two pianos) - at the Roccella Ionica Festival, and the
long, "repetitive", arch-shaped piece they played sounded
new - and risky. The Necks' approach to repetition doesn't take that
many risks. Does this fact make their music less valuable? That's for
each of us to decide. At this point in time I'd rather listen to a song
with two different - and harmonically intricate - bridges.
Beppe Colli 2002
| Dec. 9, 2002